BLOG: Perspectives from Julie Hirigoyen on Cities, Regions and Built Environment Day

Julie Hirigoyen, Chief Executive of UKGBC, reflects on Cities, Regions and Built Environment Day at COP26 and what needs to happen moving forward.
Updated Julie WLC Launch

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November 12, 2021

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Julie, what is your overarching view on Cities, Regions and Built Environment Day?

Yesterday, Cities, Regions and Built Environment Day at COP26 turned the spotlight onto our sector and its role in providing critical solutions to the climate crisis and as expected and very encouragingly, a significant body of our industry has indicated it is willing and ready to act.

What is still somewhat lacking however are the required levers and interventions from government to quickly facilitate the transition and hold the industry accountable to the many commitments made.

Where have we seen progress at international, national and industry levels?

Many of the key international commitments we have seen to date, such as the Glasgow Breakthroughs, have had implications for the industry in terms of focusing on driving the decarbonisation of key construction materials, such as steel. In a less well publicised announcement, the UK Government has partnered with those of India, Germany and Canada to pledge that it will prioritise the procurement of low carbon steel and concrete in public construction projects including a requirement for these to disclose embodied carbon impacts by 2025. There has also been a strong emphasis on steering private financial capital towards low-carbon investment, with new domestic disclosure and transition plan requirements coming alongside international-level work on standards and monitoring key pledges.

We also welcome the UK government’s launch of a new Urban Climate Action programme (UCAP) to support the cities and regions in developing countries most impacted by climate change to accelerate their transition to net zero and improve their resilience.  However, ambitious government announcements related to directly fulfilling the UK’s commitments at home through the built environment, were notably absent.

The real progress and momentum comes from the market, with no less than 26 separate built environment climate action initiatives announced by the Building to COP Coalition. With $1.2trillion real estate assets under management now signed up to Race to Zero 1.5C aligned net zero targets, World GBC announced 44 businesses signatories to its Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment, which was recently updated to include whole life carbon emissions, highlighting again the willingness of an ever-increasing portion of the industry to act.

UKGBC’s launch of a Whole Life Carbon Roadmap for the whole UK Built Environment sector at the UK Pavilion today was also a significant milestone that maps the pathway to decarbonising this sector by 2050.  Critically, this provides the UK with a shared vision and set of actions for achieving a net zero carbon UK built environment by 2050, in relation to the construction, operation, and demolition of buildings and infrastructure.

And what in your view was missing?

Generally, we need faster and bolder government action, solutions and pathways to help drive change.  Cities, regions and private sector frontrunners are already raising ambitions and accelerating progress but to fully realise the sector’s ambitions, they need an enabling regulatory framework and access to financing.

From a UK perspective, we still need major policy interventions to fulfil existing UK commitments, as evidenced by our Whole Life Carbon Roadmap that projects a Business As Usual trajectory of emissions reduction based on today’s policy framework which falls well short of net zero when projected to 2050.  So we’re calling for a national home retrofit strategy by 2022, to make our homes more energy efficient, warm, and cheaper to heat, whilst phasing out fossil fuel heating. We’re also calling for an urgent focus on embodied carbon through requirements to measure and disclose this, and eventually reduce it in line with minimum performance targets, for all asset types; as well as a greater focus on in-use energy metrics for existing and new build assets, and a more strategic carbon assessment of infrastructure investment.

Finally, we want to see more inclusion of nature across the board, UKGBC’s vision for a sustainable built environment is one that embraces and restores nature and promotes biodiversity.  Obviously with COP26 we are focussed on emission reductions but nature-based solutions in the built environment provide a wealth of climate and societal benefits and deserve more attention.

What do you see as key next steps forwards?

We need this COP to deliver a non-negotiable obligation for countries to increase their targets and national pledges to align with 1.5C not the 2.4C that they’re currently set to achieve – and this needs to happen as soon as 2022 not be parked until 2025.

As well as world leaders and Government taking action, we also need the business community to play its part. By making and fulfilling ambitious commitments, the private sector can help kill demand for fossil fuels and unsustainable products, and instead, drive investment inescapably towards sustainable alternatives.

At a UK level, the release of the Whole Life Carbon Roadmap today provides clear next steps and guidance to achieve a net zero carbon UK built environment by 2050. However this radical transformation will only be achieved, as we heard repeatedly in today’s launch session, through filling the policy gap and the continual convening and collaboration of industry stakeholders to drive the whole building value chain forwards.  UKGBC remains committed to both and over the coming months we will be engaging with both sets of stakeholders on the comprehensive next steps required to deliver the Roadmap.

Additionally, we remain committed to maintaining the spotlight on the built environment as a critical solution to climate change and will continue to promote Build Better Now as an awareness raising and educational tool to drive forwards the sustainability of the built environment.  We particularly want to ensure younger generations see the potential of the built environment as a solution to climate change, the backbone of a healthy society and a potential career choice.